Monday, June 20, 2016

Father's Day 2016

My father passed away two months ago, so this was my first Father's Day without him here. I was looking around for pictures of him with our son, but there don't appear to be many. There was one that I posted on my website back in 2014 when the little guy was only six weeks old. The only other one that I found was this:

This appears to be the last picture I have of my father with his only grandson, taken on August 28, 2015. I'm not sure why I didn't get any pictures of the two of them together last Thanksgiving. Maybe the little guy was too energetic by then, crawling all over the house at speeds that made it hard for his parents to keep up with him, to say nothing of his grandparents.

It wasn't always like this, of course. When I was little, my father liked to follow my brother and me around with a camera, taking photographs or movies of our activities. Since taking movies with Super-8 film required a powerful light, most of the images of me from that time show me blinking, squinting, and tearing up. (And drooling, though that wasn't related to the strong lights.)

Years ago, he had those Super-8 films converted to VCD format, and I have been able to relive a lot of moments in my early life that he recorded. (When he used to show the movies on the movie screen for friends and relatives, he often liked to show a movie where he caught me crawling along, then suddenly spitting up on the floor. He would then impishly run the movie backwards so that the spit-up would fly up back into my mouth. He often threatened to show it to my future wife--I think he did, in fact. She still married me.)

There are other movies that he took while we were growing up, like one of me in my high chair and my brother putting shoes up on the tray and then taking them off as I looked on in drooling confusion. He filmed little plays that my brother and I put on in the backyard for my parents. Unfortunately all the films are silent, so watching them, you have to guess what we're saying. I guess this is a common experience of those of us who grew up before video cameras were available for the general public to buy.

I am grateful that he made those movies, and especially that he decided to have them converted to video about 10 years ago. Now if we can get to scanning the black & white photos he took in Japan in the '40s and digitizing the 4-track tapes he made in the '70s of our family Easter gatherings...

I intend to write more about my father at some point this summer, but for now I just wanted to post this picture of Grandpa Benda to remember him on Father's Day.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Some thoughts on Chi-ming Wang's "Writing across the Pacific: Chinese Student Writing, Reflexive Poetics, and Transpacific Modernity"

Wang, Chi-ming. "Writing across the Pacific: Chinese Student Writing, Reflexive Poetics, and Transpacific Modernity." Amerasia Journal 38:2 (2012): 136-154.

 I just came across this article when I was looking up Chi-ming Wang after having read his article on The Jing Affair, a 1965 suspense novel about a U.S.-backed overthrow of the KMT government on Taiwan. (That book is an interesting read, by the way, as is the article.) I was attracted by the phrase "Chinese student writing" in the title because, of course, as a writing teacher who works a lot with Chinese students, I'm very well acquainted with (some) Chinese students' English writing. I should note from the outset that Wang's definition of "Chinese student writing" is somewhat broad--he characterizes it as "the literary and cultural discourses produced by 'Chinese' diasporic intellectuals who initially came to America as students" (139).

I've also been interested in how scholars like Xiaoye You and Wen-hsin Yeh have discussed the role of Chinese students' English and Chinese writing in the formation of modern Chinese identities. Like You and Yeh, Wang takes a historical perspective, ranging from the 1880s to the present in his discussion. He begins "Writing across the Pacific" with a reproduction of an open letter to President Nixon and Congress that was published in The New York Times in 1971 and calls for the U.S. to recognize Chinese sovereignty over the Diaoyutai (written as "Tiao Yu Tai," 鯛魚台) islands. By "Chinese sovereignty," they mean the Republic of China, since the people who wrote and signed this letter are apparently primarily students and scholars from Taiwan. Wang argues that the "Baodiao" movement ("Baodiao," [保鯛] means "protect the Diaoyutai Islands") "symbolized a moment of political awakening and critical reflection" among Chinese students-cum-immigrants in the United States (144). 

Wang gets back to this movement (though he doesn't mention the "student writing" exemplified by the open letter--something I would have been interested in reading more about), but first he gives some background about the writings of Chinese students in the U.S. since the late nineteenth century. He introduces us (me, anyway) to several early English-language publications produced by and for Chinese American audiences, such as The Chinese Students' Monthly (originally The Chinese Students' Bulletin) that was published between 1905 and 1931 by the Chinese Students' Alliance of America (I'm oversimplifying this a bit--see Wang 139-140 for more details and for citations). Wang points out the emphasis on a modern sense of Chinese patriotism that was exemplified by students who wrote about their experiences and perspectives living in a racist and imperialist United States (140-142). The selections he chooses from various works such as "Shadow Shapes," an anonymously written novella published in The Chinese Students' Monthly in serial form, are fascinating, and I find myself wanting to look up this magazine. (It looks like it's available through Brill, for only $4800.)

Wang moves on to discuss the Chinese student writing of the Baodiao Movement era, arguing that for the writers in that movement, "literature was a social platform for reflection and action which must begin with the self-critique of the intellectuals" (144). He argues that although the movement failed to change the U.S. viewpoint on the status of the Diaoyutai islands, the experience led Chinese writers like Zhang Xiguo and Zhang Beihai to examine more critically the deceptive American dream that many Chinese student/immigrants were pursuing (146).

Interesting for its general absence in Wang's article is how Taiwan itself is reflected in the lives and writings of the Chinese ("Chinese" in quotation marks, as Wang sometimes writes it) students/immigrants in the U.S. Most (if not all) of the Cold War era writers that he discusses, like Zhang Beihai, Zhang Xiguo, and Bai Xianyong, were Mainlanders raised in Taiwan. (One exception is the poet Yang Mu.) Wang does gesture at this fact in his discussion of Zhang Xiguo's (張系國) Rage of Yesteryear (昨日之怒, 1978), in which the character Shi Ping "defiant[ly] return[s] to Taiwan" from the U.S. (146). Wang quotes Shi Ping as "'wanting to be a Chinese rather than an overseas Chinese'" and remarks that "[t]hough it may seem odd that a student from Taiwan should wish to be 'Chinese,' Shi’s thinking was not strange in the political context of the 1960s and 1970s, when it was believed that China would one day be reunited and when Taiwanese national consciousness was still nascent" (146-147). I would argue that here Wang ignores the fact that Shi Ping is a Mainlander (as is Zhang Xiguo), a status that colors his sense of identity and leads him to equate Taiwan with China. Shi's status as a Mainlander also brings up the interesting factor in this whole discussion of identity and the sense of displacement that Chinese (Mainlander) students/immigrants in the U.S. felt: that they cannot simply be viewed as displaced in terms of being in the U.S., but that they were displaced in the first place, when they retreated to Taiwan or were born to parents who retreated to Taiwan in 1949. Perhaps Wang doesn't address this because the writers themselves don't dwell on it; this is something I might explore in the future.

I would also question the assertion that "Taiwanese national consciousness was still nascent" in the 1960s and 1970s. Wang observes in an endnote that "in the 1960s and 1970s, [Taiwan's] national ideology was more Chinese than Taiwanese" (153, n. 43), which is true to an extent. A post by Michael Turton cites an article from 1963 that discusses "Chiang Kai-shek's Silent Enemies," which would suggest that the Taiwanese/Mainlander divide was strong then.

This divide is also neglected earlier in Wang's article when he writes of the motivations that students from Taiwan had to stay in the U.S. after graduation: "At a time when another war was a real fear in Taiwan, many students came to America not only to study, but also to stay, seeking permanent residency and U.S. citizenship at the end of their studies" (142). This explanation ignores the experiences of Taiwanese students in the U.S. who stayed as a result of their pro-Taiwan independence work in the U.S. Some, like the uncle of Wang Benhu, were blacklisted from returning to Taiwan (see the video linked to in my previous post).  

I have written briefly before about the Taiwanese students at Kansas State University who worked for the Taiwan independence movement. Will Tiao, as I mention in that post, came from Manhattan, Kansas, and has observed that KSU was known as the "military school for Taiwan independence" (台獨軍校). I have written elsewhere about the "student writing" (to use the phrase in Wang's sense of it) that went on among Taiwanese and Mainlander students at KSU regarding Taiwan's identity. This conflict is relevant to Wang's discussion because it illustrates the complexity of "Chinese" modernity and "Chinese" students. As Wang notes early on in his article, "Due to the complicated history of modern China, Chinese student writers arrived in America at different historical junctures, bearing imprints of their origins" (139). The Taiwanese students at KSU who engaged in a "battle of the pens" in the KSU newspaper with their Mainlander schoolmates in the mid-1960s could also be said to be engaged in a battle over what it meant to be (seen as) a Chinese person in the United States. (See the oral history, 一門留美學生的建國故事, for reproductions of the letters published in the KSU paper.) Both through their words and through their requests to have their names withheld out of fear of reprisals, the Taiwanese students called into question the dominant depictions of Taiwan as "Free China."

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Chinese soldiers' suicides in 1950s Taiwan: a few notes

A particularly poignant part of Vern Sneider's novel A Pail of Oysters occurs when the American journalist Ralph Barton, aided by the KMT government-appointed interpreter Paul Huang, interviews Chin Poo-liang, a Chinese soldier who retreated to Taiwan in 1949 (see chapter 18). I've written a bit about the interview elsewhere (see pp. 47-48), but here I'm interested in the context of that episode and in the tragedy that Chin Poo-liang represents.

Chin is portrayed as a twenty-one-year-old private (actually an acting sergeant) who originally came from a village in Guangdong Province. He joined the Nationalist Army after his village was taken over by the Communists and his family was killed, but then had to retreat to Taiwan with the Army in 1949. His daily activities are described: they are busy every day with training and studying (Chin is studying math so that he can become an a clerk when they retake the Mainland), and Huang tells Barton that they subsist mostly on rice, tofu, and vegetables--eating pork twice a month and fish three times a month. He is paid 30 Formosan dollars a month, which Barton calculates is equivalent to less than US$2 a month. Private Chin, says Huang, wants Barton to use Chin's real name and home village in his article; as the interpreter tells Barton, "'No one there on the mainland can do anything to his family now, because you see, none are left'" (150).

Joshua Fan, in his book China's Homeless Generation: Voices from the Veterans of the Chinese Civil War, 1940s - 1990s (Routledge, 2012), calls soldiers like Chin the "Homeless Generation"; not only were they dispossessed of their physical homes in China, but they were tormented by the fading hope that they would ever be able to return home--a hope that was kept alive as a result of KMT government promises to "retake the Mainland." In the novel, Huang expresses confidence that Chin will have a better life once the KMT returns to China--a return Barton considers highly unlikely.

In addition, despite Huang's description of Chin's Spartan yet livable conditions (note that attending the interview are a general and a regimental commander), according to Fan, things were not so pleasant in the Army:
In addition to the pressure to maintain readiness, the poor physical treatment made their lives unbearable. A soldier was not worth much then and officer Zhao witnessed a soldier being beaten to death as a punishment for not cleaning his rifle properly. He added that, "Because we had no family, who was going to report the wrong doing on your behalf, and who was going to seek revenge for you? No one!" (L. Sun 2001: 35). (79)
Fan argues that because of the lack of family who could be counted on for support, soldiers from the mainland were treated even more poorly than Taiwanese conscripts. Fan observes that suicide was a common act among the Chinese soldiers, especially "after the young soldiers realized they they would not be going home" (78). He quotes interviewees that reported having heard the sounds of gunshots in the barracks and others who reported having seen the bodies of soldiers who had hanged themselves.

Even more disturbing is the story of soldiers who went to movie theaters with hand grenades and "took others with them," as reported here on Zhongtian's "台灣大搜索":

The program recounts incidents ("attacks" might be an appropriate word) in Taipei (March 4, 1953, in Ximending), Taipei County (2 weeks after the Ximending explosion), in Kaohsiung (January 24, 1954), and in Taichung (April 1, 1958). According to the reporter, it's possible that there were more attacks, but that news of other attacks would be suppressed.

According to one interviewee, author and TV host Wang Benhu (汪笨胡), the government characterized these attacks as the work of Chinese Communist spies rather than admitting that these were the last desperate acts of Nationalist soldiers. As he puts it, the soldiers "probably felt that if they were going to go, they might as well take others with them."

Another interviewee, author Guan Renjian (管仁健), argues that one reason for these incidents was that the Chinese veterans were unable to marry due to their poor salaries. In Sneider's novel, Barton estimates that Chin will never be able to marry on his salary, which is the equivalent of US$1.90 a month. Wang Benhu suggests that Chiang Ching-kuo helped with this situation by allowing Mainland soldiers to marry after 1970. He doesn't mention how Chiang might have made it possible for the veterans to afford it, however.

Guan also notes that before 1970, gun control (and I assume hand grenade control?) for members of the military was very loose because everyone needed to be ready to fight the Communists. This loose policy probably also contributed to the "Nantou shooting" of 1959, in which an Army captain killed 10 people with two rifles before killing himself.

Sneider doesn't come back to the character of Chin Poo-liang later on in the novel, so we're left to wonder about his fate. This quick review of the soldier's situations during the 1950s  gives us some sense, though, of what is in store for Chin.

[Update, 6/3/16: Something that I wasn't able to read yesterday due to a limitation on the number of pages I could read in Google Books: Fan explains that the government issued regulations in 1952 that heavily limited the ability of military personnel to marry in Taiwan:
According to the 1952 Military Marriage Regulations, only those officers and NCOs with special skills and over the age of 28 could marry. "NCOs with special skills" referred to a small number who worked as technicians in military facilities; other NCOs and enlisted men were not allowed to marry during their terms of service (ZMNJS 1953: 181). (66)
Fan also notes, however, that the penalties for personnel who broke the rules weren't consistent. He gives some examples of enlisted men who secretly married but were not penalized (except that they didn't get any extra allowance for their families); on the other hand, he mentions a soldier who was punished for marrying without permission (67). He also mentions that the rules "were relaxed in 1959 to allow for any NCOs over the age of 25 and enlisted men who had served for at least three years to marry" (67).]